One of my biggest fears when I quit drinking was that I would lose my ability to write.
Loosening up for a writing session with a glass (or a bottle) of wine had become such a major part of my writing ritual that I conflated the two.
You’ve probably heard the writing advice, often attributed to Hemmingway, that you should “Write drunk. Edit Sober.” (Spoiler alert: This is really bad advice)
There have been so many famous drug- and alcohol-dependant writers and artists throughout history that we begin to believe that they were successful because of their addiction rather than in spite of it.
We believe drugs and alcohol help us to expand our minds, free our creativity, and become a truer version of ourselves. Or we believe that the pain and torment of addiction somehow fuels the emotional power of our work.
We romanticize substance abuse and addiction.
Well, it’s time to bust that myth.
I quit drinking more than three years ago after years of depression and alcohol abuse.
Did this affect my creativity? Yes.
But not in the way I thought it would.
Since quitting drinking and working on my mental health, I have finished writing seven novels and many more short stories and novellas.
I have won writing contests and competitions and been invited to participate in anthologies with best-selling authors in my genre.
I have turned my passion for writing fiction into a career and taken on challenges I never would have dreamed of being possible. You can read a bit about this journey in my article Goal-Smashing: What writing pulp fiction taught me about creativity and productivity.
I am a much better writer sober than I ever was when I was drinking.
But at first, it was really hard. I had to relearn my creative process and find new ways to tap into my muse.
So today, I’d like to share some the early steps I took when I was newly sober and struggling to connect to my creative mind.
5 Tips to Jumpstart Your Creativity in Recovery
1. Go Outside
No matter what the weather is like, going outside for a short walk or bike ride, or even just to sit under a tree and listen to the birds, is a great way to connect with your creative side.
Turn your phone off. Breathe the air and try to identify all the different scents and sounds around you. Look at the sky and the flowers and think of other things that share these colour schemes. Make up stories (even if you aren’t a writer) about the people who live inside the houses you pass, or conversations for the people you see talking in the distance.
Even if it’s cold or rainy, allow yourself to feel what it is like for your body to be outside. I come up with all kinds of interesting metaphors and associations when I’m uncomfortable.
You might not use any of it right away, or at all, but being outside and experiencing nature has a magical way of filling up the creative well in side us.
Exercising outside is also a great way to jumpstart your brain when you are feeling blocked. Our brains are better problem solvers while we are exercising and afterwards.
2. Practice Mindfulness
The first tip is really about mindfulness, but the added bonus of fresh air. But mindfulness itself is a great way to prime your brain for creativity. Each day, spend some time practicing being in the moment.
I like to do this when I first wake up and I’m drinking my tea or coffee on the couch before the kids wake up. Put away the phone, turn off the TV and any other distractions.
Meditation is great habit too (or so I’ve heard… ) I’ve never gotten the hang of it. Mindfulness has been my compromise.
Any kind of activity that allows you to to exist in the moment without passing judgement on it or yourself is like a healing balm to our creative minds. Judgement and criticism are major creative blocks and the more time you can spend without them, the better!
3. Journal Your Thoughts
I love Julia Cameron’s book “The Right to Write.” While I am not a daily journaller, I often doodle and write snippets when I’m daydreaming or brainstorming. Being a consistent journaller has always been a dream of mine, just like daily yoga and meditation… And I’m not there yet.
However, the benefits of journalling can be had even if you’re just a sporadic doodler. This is really an exercise in not letting your brain “self edit” your thoughts. Write down or draw things that you think are stupid, let yourself get ideas out even if they aren’t polished yet. Even if they are clichés, or stereotypes, or over-used tropes. Get it all out there.
Crappy ideas are like the clay you build a beautiful sculpture with. They’re ugly, messy, and aren’t much good when they sit there like a blob on the page. But they do some interesting things when you start poking and prodding and moving them around. Sometimes two crappy ideas will combine and make something really cool and unexpected.
You don’t know until you try!
4. Become a Creative Consumer
When I am stuck for ideas and feel like my creative well has run dry, sometimes it isn’t helpful to try to force it. Sometimes the best way to fill up those creative cups is to drink from other people’s cups. In a post-Covid world that metaphor goes all kinds of sideways, but work with me here…
Consuming creative work is a great way to get our muses back into the flow of things. But in an effort to avoid falling into a pit of despair and imposter syndrome, sometimes it’s best to step outside our comfort zone.
If you are a writer, read outside your genre. Better yet, go visit an art gallery. If you are a musician, check out some venues that are not your scene, or go to a movie and listen to the music score. If you are an artist, study other mediums or work from artists in another part of the world.
Inspiration comes from the strangest places, and we often find it when we aren’t looking for it. This is why consuming creative work that is very different from our own can be such a great trigger. We are stimulating our creative minds but we are also off-guard enough that inspiration can flow freely.
5. Pretend to be Someone Else
If you are really stuck, and you can’t get out of your own head enough to find your own creative spark, maybe it’s time to be someone else.
Write a journal entry as if you are someone completely different: a sibling, or a coworker, a hated rival, or a romantic interest. Imagine what it’s like to be in their head.
Artists and musicians can do this by participating in #DrawThisInYourStyle challenges or by learning someone else’s songs and either imitating them or trying to cover it in a different sound.
You can take a class in an art form you’ve never tried before. Writers, pick up some ukulele classes. Artists, try a writing class. Musicians, try cartooning.
There is nothing more freeing than going back to the very basics of a skill and learning something new from the ground up. Building these creative connections in your brain will help you when you practice your own craft, too.
Getting sober is tough. Somedays it will feel like all you can do to get through the day without adding anything else to your plate.
Getting in tune with your creative side in recovery can be a great way to distract yourself from intrusive thoughts about drinking/using, and it can help you focus your attention and channel your energy in a positive way.
The most important thing is to give yourself grace. Don’t expect miracles overnight. Baby steps are still steps. When you’re consistently moving forward a little at a time, suddenly you’ll look back and be amazed at how far you’ve come.
What are your favourite ways to get ready to create? Do you have any tips or tricks for unblocking your creativity? Share in the comments!